Quotulatiousness

April 16, 2014

Thought experiment – in media reports, replace “scientist” with “some guy”

Filed under: Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:38

Frank Fleming makes an interesting point:

Our society holds scientists in high esteem. When scientists say something — whether it’s about the composition of matter, the beginning of the universe, or who would win a fight between a giant gorilla and a T. Rex — we all sit up and listen. And it doesn’t matter if they say something that sounds completely ridiculous; as long as a statement is preceded with “scientists say,” we assume it is truth.

There’s just one problem with that: There are no such things as scientists.

Okay, you’re probably saying, “What? Scientists are real! I’ve seen them before! There’s even a famous, blurry photo of a man in a lab coat walking through the woods.” Well, yes, there are people known as scientists and who call themselves such, but the word is pretty much meaningless.

[...]

Which brings us back to our problem. So much of science these days seems to be built on faith — faith being something that doesn’t have anything to do with science. Yet everyone apparently has faith that all these scientists we hear about follow good methods and are smart and logical and unbiased — when we can’t actually know any of that. So often news articles contain phrases such as, “scientists say,” “scientists have proven,” “scientists agree” — and people treat those phrases like they mean something by themselves, when they don’t mean anything at all. It’s like if you wanted music for your wedding, and someone came up to you and said, “I know a guy. He’s a musician.”

“What instrument does he play?”

“He’s a musician.”

“Is he any good?”

“He’s a musician.”

You see, when other occupations are vaguely described, we know to ask questions, but because we have blind faith in science, such reason is lost when we hear the term “scientist.” Which is why I’m arguing that for the sake of better scientific understanding, we should get rid of the word and simply replace it with “some guy.”

It’s not exactly a new phenomenon: Robert Heinlein put these words in the mouth of Lazarus Long, “Most ‘scientists’ are bottle washers and button sorters.” It was true then, and if anything it’s even more true now as we have so many more people working in scientific fields.

April 13, 2014

QotD: Politicians

Filed under: Humour, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:24

Being an MP is a vast subsidized ego-trip. It’s a job that needs no qualifications, it has no compulsory hours of work, no performance standards, and provides a warm room, a telephone and subsidized meals to a bunch of self-important windbags and busybodies who suddenly find people taking them seriously because they’ve go the letters ‘MP’ after the their name.

Jonathan Lynn, “Yes Minister Series: Quotes from the dialogue”, JonathanLynn.com

April 9, 2014

Palin – “A lot of Python was crap, it really was”

Filed under: Britain, Humour, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:38

The funny bits were very funny indeed, but we tend to forget the never-ending interminable repetitive repetitiveness of a lot of the other material:

Michael Palin has finally admitted what many of us have known in our hearts for some time: a lot of Monty Python‘s material was “crap.”

“People forgive you the things that don’t work. A lot of Python was crap, it really was,” said Palin, yesterday, at the launch of a tour called “Travelling To Work” announced at the London Book Fair.

“We put stuff in there that was not really that good, but fortunately there were a couple of things that everyone remembers while they’ve forgotten the dross,” he said.

Palin is dead right, of course. As a child in the 1970s I remember sitting stony-faced through entire episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But at the time, and ever since, there has existed a powerful omerta whereby no one can admit to finding Monty Python unfunny for fear of being thought humourless or not part of the gang.

Monty Python‘s inflated reputation derives as much as anything, I think, from a combination of obsessive repetition and peer pressure. That is, a lot of their sketches are not particularly funny in and of themselves, but have been conferred the status of classics as a result of being endlessly repeated by drunken students who brandish their knowledge of Python sketches as a way of acquiring cult credibility.

I know this because it’s exactly what I did myself at university in the mid-Eighties.

Yeah, well, on that last bit all I can say is “All right, it’s a fair cop, but society is to blame”.

March 31, 2014

A guide to interpreting official Chinese TV phrases

Filed under: China, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:28

The WSJ‘s China Real Time column heartily approves of the guide to CCTV (China Central Television) posted by The World of Chinese:

… it’s a very handy guide to interpreting CCTV’s newspeak on the Network News at seven o’clock (Xinwen Lianbo新闻联播). It describes how CCTV sets the tone on the key issues of the day — every day, rain or shine — and in a nutshell some of their key observations are:

  • Your remote will be rendered useless and there is no place to hide. Central, provincial, city and local channels are all required to broadcast the program
  • Unplugging the TV won’t help as the same message awaits you on websites and newspapers the following day
  • No issue is too small when it comes to practicing the core values of socialism

For readers who are studying Chinese, the post also offers handy examples of the program’s particular phraseology — a sparse and wooden collection of stock formulations all too familiar to some of CRT’s more grizzled correspondents. A few of our favorites: “The two sides carried out an affable and friendly discussion” (双方进行了亲切友好的会谈), “[Insert country here] reaffirms that it objects to any forces threatening to undermine Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity” ( ___ 重申,反对任何破坏中国国 家主权和领土完整的势力), “The Chinese side highly praised the [insert country here] government’s efforts to always adhere to the one-China policy. (中方高度赞赏 ___ 政府始终坚持一个中国政策的立场)

To further the understanding of the uninitiated, we offer a few observations of our own:

  • The chairman always tops the news no matter how irrelevant his activities were that day
  • Nobody makes unimportant speeches
  • Nobody ever says what was in the important speeches
  • Long handshakes with unrecognizable visiting dignitaries always make interesting TV
  • China’s position is always reasonable
  • The world outside China’s borders is a frightening miasma of natural disasters, political crises and economic ruin.

To understand that last bullet point, you only have to watch a few minutes of MSNBC or Fox News.

Trust is the key to civilization

Filed under: Government, Liberty, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Victor Davis Hanson explains why the drop in trust — specifically the peoples’ trust in government — is on a steep downward trajectory:

Transparency and truth are the fuels that run sophisticated civilizations. Without them, the state grinds to a halt. Lack of trust — not barbarians on the frontier, global warming or cooling, or even epidemics — doomed civilizations of the past, from imperial Rome to the former Soviet Union.

The United States can withstand the untruth of a particular presidential administration if the permanent government itself is honest. Dwight Eisenhower lied about the downed U-2 spy plane inside the Soviet Union. Almost nothing Richard Nixon said about Watergate was true. Intelligence reports of vast stockpiles of WMD in Iraq proved as accurate as Bill Clinton’s assertion that he never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky.

Presidents fib. The nation gets outraged. The independent media dig out the truth. And so the system of trust repairs itself.

What distinguishes democracies from tinhorn dictatorships and totalitarian monstrosities are our permanent meritocratic government bureaus that remain nonpartisan and honestly report the truth.

The Benghazi, Associated Press, and National Security Agency scandals are scary, but not as disturbing as growing doubts about the honesty of permanent government itself.

March 25, 2014

BBC to be (effectively) privatized in proposed new legislation

Filed under: Britain, Law, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:09

British TV viewers are required to pay a regular license fee (which funds the BBC) or they can be prosecuted. The British government may be on the verge of changing this:

Budgets come and go, but something more far-reaching will take place in the House of Commons today; something that might change our political discourse significantly, benignly and permanently.

The Government has indicated that it will back a Bill, brought in by the backbench MP, Andrew Bridgen, to decriminalise non-payment of the Television Licence Fee. Instead of being dragged through the courts, defaulters will simply have their access to the BBC switched off — in the same way that Sky withdraws its services from those who don’t pay their subscriptions.

The practical case for the measure is unarguable. The BBC’s privileged legal position is silting up our criminal justice system. A ridiculous 180,000 people face prosecution every year over non-payment. Under the new regime, they will instead be in the position people who don’t cough up for their gas or electricity bills. A great deal of time and money will be saved.

But the real significance of the proposal is that it will, in practice, remove the BBC’s monopoly. If the penalty for non-payment of the licence fee is withdrawal of the service, rather than prosecution, then that fee ceases to be a tax and becomes a subscription. Refusal to pay is no longer a criminal act, but an exercise of consumer choice. The BBC will become, in practice, a pay-on-demand service like its rivals.

March 22, 2014

The “narrative”

Filed under: Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:10

Wilfred McClay noticed the increasing use of the term “narrative” over the last few years:

We have this term now in circulation: “the narrative.” It is one of those somewhat pretentious academic terms that has wormed its way into common speech, like “gender” or “significant other,” bringing hidden freight along with it. Everywhere you look, you find it being used, and by all kinds of people. Elite journalists, who are likely to be products of university life rather than years of shoe-leather reporting, are perhaps the most likely to employ it, as a way of indicating their intellectual sophistication. But conservative populists like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are just as likely to use it too. Why is that so? What does this development mean?

I think the answer is clear. The ever more common use of “narrative” signifies the widespread and growing skepticism about any and all of the general accounts of events that have been, and are being, provided to us. We are living in an era of pervasive genteel disbelief — nothing so robust as relativism, but instead something more like a sustained “whatever” — and the word “narrative” provides a way of talking neutrally about such accounts while distancing ourselves from a consideration of their truth. Narratives are understood to be “constructed,” and it is assumed that their construction involves conscious or unconscious elements of selectivity — acts of suppression, inflation, and substitution, all meant to fashion the sequencing and coloration of events into an instrument that conveys what the narrator wants us to see and believe.

These days, even your garage mechanic is likely to speak of the White House narrative, the mainstream-media narrative, and indicate an awareness that political leaders try to influence the interpretation of events at a given time, or seek to “change the narrative” when things are not turning out so well for them and there is a strongly felt need to change the subject. The language of “narrative” has become a common way of talking about such things.

One can regret the corrosive side effects of such skepticism, but there are good reasons for it. Halfway through the first quarter of the 21st century, we find ourselves saddled with accounts of our nation’s past, and of the trajectory of American history, that are demonstrably suspect, and disabling in their effects. There is a view of America as an exceptionally guilty nation, the product of a poisonous mixture of territorial rapacity emboldened by racism, violence, and chauvinistic religious conviction, an exploiter of natural resources and despoiler of natural beauty and order such as the planet has never seen. Coexisting with that dire view is a similarly exaggerated Whiggish progressivism, in which all of history is seen as a struggle toward the greater and greater liberation of the individual, and the greater and greater integration of all governance in larger and larger units, administered by cadres of experts actuated by the public interest and by a highly developed sense of justice. The arc of history bends toward the latter view, although its progress is impeded by the malign effects of the former one.

March 13, 2014

The Pity of War was a strange programme; flashy, lopsided, inconsequentially contrarian”

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:00

In a post at the History Today site, Paul Lay describes a rebroadcast of the BBC production based on Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War:

It featured Niall Ferguson, the Harvard historian, reviving the arguments of his 1998 book of the same name: that Britain and its Empire should have stayed out of the war to leave Europe to be dominated by the economic giant that was the Kaiser’s imperium, much as the EU is now led by the wealthy, democratic Germany of Angela Merkel. After having spent almost an hour outlining his argument, Ferguson’s thesis was then quickly shot down by a phalanx of historians of the First World War, including Gary Sheffield, Heather Jones and Hew Strachan.

The Pity of War was a strange programme; flashy, lopsided, inconsequentially contrarian. At one point it ran a brief clip of A.J.P. Taylor, doyen of television historians, in his 1977 series How Wars Begin. The BBC don’t tend to produce programmes like that anymore — a single academic historian, addressing the audience with complex arguments in real time to camera — except that they do. The best, the most instructive and original television offering so far on the outbreak of the war is that of the constitutional historian Vernon Bogdanor: his lecture entitled Diplomacy: Sir Edward Grey and the Crisis of 1914, originally broadcast last year on the BBC Parliament channel and therefore, sadly, seen by few.

)

March 4, 2014

“Comedy turned inward and became domesticated [and] smaller”

Filed under: Humour, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:41

In the New York Post, Kyle Smith discusses the comedians of the 1970s and their modern day successors:

As Chevy Chase might have put it on Saturday Night Live, Harold Ramis is still dead. And with him has gone the finest era of comedy: The ’70s kind.

Ramis was as close to the king of comedy as it gets, as a writer, director and occasional sidekick for Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Back to School, National Lampoon’s Vacation and Groundhog Day.

[...]

Taking off with the movie M*A*S*H in 1970 — a huge hit that grossed $450 million in today’s dollars — and its spinoff sitcom, ’70s comedy ruled from an anti-throne of contempt for authority in all shapes. College deans, student body presidents, Army sergeants and officers, country-club swells, snooty professors and the EPA: Anyone who made it his life’s work to lord it over others got taken down with wit.

When the smoke bombs cleared and the anarchy died, comedy turned inward and became domesticated. It also became smaller.

The Cosby Show and Jerry Seinfeld didn’t seek to ridicule those in power. Instead they gave us comfy couch comedy — riffs on family and etiquette and people’s odd little habits.

Now, in the Judd Apatow era, comedy is increasingly marked by two worrying trends: One is a knee-jerk belief, held even by many of the most brilliant comedy writers, that coming up with the biggest, most outlandish gross-out gags is their highest calling.

H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link.

February 26, 2014

Carl Sagan and when warnings about a new ice age switched to global warming instead

Filed under: Environment, Media, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:44

As a youngster, Robert Tracinski was a huge fan of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos TV series. It was a formative experience for him, yet he found that Sagan’s concerns about global warming were not convincing … because those warnings were actually antithetical to his larger message:

It might seem strange to say it, but I am a global warming skeptic because of Carl Sagan.

This might seem strange because Sagan was an early promoter of the theory that man-made emissions of carbon dioxide are going to fry the globe. But it’s not so strange when you consider the larger message that made Sagan famous.

As with many people my age, Sagan’s 1980 series Cosmos, which aired on public television when I was eleven years old, was my introduction to science, and it changed my life. Cosmos shared the latest developments in the sciences of evolution, astronomy, and astrophysics, but its real heart was Sagan’s overview of the history of science and the distinctive ethos behind the scientific method. Sagan returned again and again to one central theme: that the first rule of science is to follow the evidence wherever it leads, regardless of one’s wishes or preconceptions. He spoke eloquently about the Ancient Greek Pythagoreans and their attempt to suppress the facts about “irrational numbers” that didn’t fit their theory. And he spoke admiringly about the 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler, who started out pursuing a theory in which the planets move in circular orbits reflecting the ratios of the perfect Pythagorean solids — and ended up being driven by the evidence to reject this theory and discover completely new laws of planetary motion.

I didn’t end up becoming a scientist, but I absorbed Sagan’s basic lesson and have tried my best to adhere to it in my own field: follow the evidence wherever it leads.

But this can be a difficult rule to follow. It is easy to spot the unexamined assumptions of others, but harder to root out your own prejudices. A few years ago, while watching Cosmos again for the first time in 25 years, I was reminded that Sagan did not always practice what he preached, and his error sheds light on the global warming theory’s original sin against science. It is a sin that has only gotten worse and which explains the scandalous state of today’s debate over global warming.

[...]

This is a bit of a cultural time capsule, preserving the precise moment at which scientific alarmists were switching from warning about a new ice age, in the 1970s, to warning about runaway warming.

February 25, 2014

QotD: The power of the right accent

Filed under: Humour, Media, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:57

We assign 20 extra IQ points to anyone who speaks with a British accent, redistributing them from the people who speak with Southern accents.

Dave Weigel, “Shut Up, Piers: Thank goodness Piers Morgan Live is dead. Finally.”, Slate, 2014-02-24

February 2, 2014

Some of the Super Bowl commercials Canadians won’t see on TV

Filed under: Business, Football, Humour, Media — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:13

The audience for the Super Bowl is split between fans of the game (who actually care about the outcome) and fans of the ads (because this is the biggest TV audience, advertisers pull out all the stops and generally try to be genuinely funny). In Canada, thanks to our TV regulations, most of us will see the broadcast of the game itself, but we won’t see the same commercials as our US neighbours … we’ll get the same assortment of crummy ads they’ve been showing since the start of the season, with a few of the US ads as a “teaser”.

Fortunately for those who aren’t interested in the game itself, but like the commercials, the lead-up to the Super Bowl usually includes web release of many of the ads that will air during the broadcast. Here’s a selection put together by the Guardian, including a “behind the scenes” of an ad that won’t get shown … because it was never made:

Go behind the scenes of the Mega Huge Football Ad Newcastle Brown Ale almost made with the mega huge celebrity who almost starred in it. See more at http://www.IfWeMadeIt.com

The VW ad is rather amusing, too:

February 1, 2014

QotD: Captains, Majors, and Colonels

Filed under: Britain, Media, Military, Quotations — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:06

The BBC television show Blackadder is arguably one of the funniest and finest comedies of the late 20th century. Achingly sharp, with jokes that are still funny to this day, it was a four series show which finished with Blackadder Goes Forth set in the First World War. Watching the show today, one is struck by how funny it is, and also worryingly how its anti-establishment jokes aimed at undermining the social structure of the time has become the accepted historical record of the First World War.

The UK has a very strange ‘love hate’ relationship with its military officers — junior ones are portrayed as incompetent (Lieutenant George), Captains are seen as possibly okay (Captain Blackadder), Majors are usually seen retired and with a snifter in their hand (the Major from Fawlty Towers), while Colonels or heaven forbid Generals (General Melchett) are usually seen as inept, incompetent, who do not have a clue about their profession or what it involves. They are seen as people without a clue until the point when they retire, at which point they suddenly become military geniuses, whose angry letters to Broadsheet newspapers warrant being printed on the grounds that they are military commanders who know what they are talking about.

Sir Humphrey, “This is the Captain(s) of Your Ship Speaking… Why there are 260 Captains in the Royal Navy today”, Thin Pinstriped Line, 2013-10-19

January 30, 2014

James T. Kirk, a character who regressed from the first season onwards

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:17

Steve Muhlberger is between major history projects right now, so he takes a bit of time to find out why so many of his friends are fans of the original Star Trek TV series.

So what about the original series? My memory of the original series is that it was not really very good. I was only about 15 when it came on, but I’d already read a lot of high-quality science fiction in print, and I thought that the TV show was not really giving the best selection of science-fiction ideas available. The series was better than most of what was on TV, but most of what was on TV was pretty lame.

Part of me wondered why the series had such a tremendous impact. I knew plenty of people who really loved it.

I’m a bit younger than Steve, so I didn’t watch the original broadcasts on NBC from 1966-69. For me, it was an after-school show in the early 70s that so far as I can remember was not shown in any kind of order. It left me with no sense of how the show changed over time (improving, in some respects). Steve points out one thing that didn’t improve:

A good half of that season focused on exactly one idea, which is not really much of a science fictional idea as much as a horror genre idea. That idea is that universe is filled with things that look like human beings that are actually monsters; or alternatively things that started out as human beings have turned into monsters, sometimes only moral monsters. There’s a lot of betrayal and menace in those early episodes, and they’re not really very good episodes otherwise.

But about halfway through that first season, what people have loved about this series begins to emerge. By that I mean the characters and the interactions between the characters on the ship and particularly on the bridge of the ship start making you really care about what goes on with them.

What really surprised me was that I liked the first season James T Kirk. I have always been someone who put James T Kirk down as a borderline maniac whose prominence in Starfleet reveals a weakness in their whole system, especially the recruiting efforts. My image of Kirk is a rather smug character who relies on his physical charisma (which did not really speak to me) to get his way. But the first season Kirk is not really like that. He’s trimmer, fitter, handsomer and — can’t believe I’m saying this — more intelligent and more philosophical than he was later on in the series or in the movies. He says a lot of things are actually smart. He looks smarter than Spock!

January 29, 2014

YouTube‘s formative nine-sixteenths of a second

Filed under: Football, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:19

Marin Cogan explains how less than a second of TV helped to trigger the development of YouTube:

You know what happens next. Justin reaches over, grabs a corner of Janet’s right breast cup and gives it a hard tug. Her breast spills out. It’s way more than a handful, but a hand is the only thing Janet has available to cover it, so she clutches it with her left palm. The breast is on television for 9/16 of a second. The camera cuts wide. Fireworks explode from the stage. Cue the end of halftime. Cue the beginning of one of the worst cases of mass hysteria in America since the Salem witch trials.

[...]

Michael Powell, then the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, was watching the game at a friend’s house in northern Virginia. He’s a football fan and was excited to relax and watch the game after a rough couple of weeks. “I started thinking, Wow, this is kind of a racy routine for the Super Bowl!” he says, his voice pitching up in bemusement. “He was chasing her kind of with this aggressive thing — not that I personally minded it; I just hadn’t seen something that edgy at the Super Bowl.”

Then it happened. Powell and his friend gave each other quizzical looks. “I looked and I went, ‘What was that?’ And my friend looks at me and he’s just like, ‘Dude, did you just see what I did? Do you think she … ?’ And I kept saying, ‘My day is going to suck tomorrow.’” Powell went home and watched the moment again on TiVo. The same thought kept running through his mind: Tomorrow is going to really suck, he remembers thinking. “And it did.”

[...]

Of course, our children and our children’s children will never need to dig up an actual time capsule to find out about the wardrobe malfunction. As soon as they hear about the time Janet Jackson’s breast was exposed on live TV, they’ll watch it online. And the reason they’ll watch it online is that in 2004, Jawed Karim, then a 25-year-old Silicon Valley whiz kid, decided he wanted to make it easier to find the Jackson clip and other in-demand videos. A year later, he and a couple of friends founded YouTube, the largest video-sharing site of all time.

Older Posts »
« « Alan Moore on the “cultural catastrophe” of Superheroes| Pitching the New Deal through film – Gabriel Over the White House » »

Powered by WordPress

%d bloggers like this: